The turnout may be low for France's parliamentary elections this weekend, but the stakes are higher than ever.
On June 10, French citizens will cast primary votes for their representatives in the National Assembly. This lower house of parliament has 577 seats up for grabs, and the results will be of great consequence to brand new Socialist President Francois Hollande.
The Sunday election will determine who stays on for the next round of voting. A runoff election will take place on June 17, which will decide the makeup of Hollande's government.
If the Socialists win 289 seats, they'll have a majority and a clear mandate to go forward with the president's promises to ease austerity and create growth. If not -- and if a strong leftist coalition cannot be organized -- Hollande will be forced to contend with five years of resistance from allied blocs of parliamentary conservatives.
In spite of all this, AP reports that only 40 percent of registered voters are expected to cast a ballot.
Mining Town Microcosm
In this high-stakes, low-turnout environment, candidates have every reason to fight tooth and nail, jour et nuit. And one particularly vicious race has caught everyone's attention.
In the poor district surrounding the former mining town of Henin-Beaumont, Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist, far-right National Front, is squaring off against left-wing rival Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Left Front. Both politicians ran in the presidential election two months ago, and both made a relatively fair showing.
Now, both are expected to advance to a runoff vote for a seat on the National Assembly.
Henin-Beaumont and surrounding areas have been hit especially hard by the euro zone crisis. The mines and factories that once thrived there have been shut down, the jobs have been outsourced, and the standard of living has tanked.
The district was once thought to be an easy win for Le Pen, but Melenchon's decision to enter the race has put her chances in jeopardy. Though they represent different sides of the political spectrum, both candidates are populist outsiders with great appeal to voters in hard-hit communities.
As a politician, Le Pen still has some convincing to do. She inherited the NF from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, just last year. Her father had become a political pariah due to a widespread conviction that he was a racist anti-Semite, and now Marine Le Pen is working to revitalize her party's image.
But considering the younger Le Pen's strong stance against immigration and what she calls the Islamization of France, shedding the stigma has not been easy.
Le Pen also advocates for greater national security, the protection of French culture, and a return to French currency following the dissolution of the euro zone, which she considers unsustainable despite the fact that she serves as a Member of the European Parliament.
Spare Some Change
As in many other euro zone countries, tough times have left many French voters desperate for a new direction. Unemployment is up at 10 percent and economic growth has sputtered to a stop. France lost its AAA credit rating in January. The government has been forced to implement austerity measures, cutting back on spending and hiking up taxes.
This led to the relative success of both right- and left-wing parties in the May presidential election, at the expense of center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. He was the first French incumbent president to lose a reelection bid in over 30 years.
Hollande was the ultimate victor in the presidential race, but Le Pen made a strong showing for third place with 17.9 percent of the primary vote. The NF has never matched that figure in any presidential election since it was first founded in 1972.
Le Pen's campaign appealed to growing segment of French voters for whom nationalist protectionism represented a fresh solution to a number of problems. These voters felt that globalization had resulted in the exportation of jobs, that joining the euro zone had tanked the French economy, and that immigration had led to instability.
That last issue became especially pressing in March, when Mohammed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, killed 7 unarmed people over 10 days and claimed he was working for al Qaeda.
Even Sarkozy started to get into the act during his reelection campaign, realizing the need to tack right in order to win enough votes to beat out the Socialist Party. His pro-security, anti-immigration language grew notably stronger during the last months of his tenure as president.
The strategy did not work for Sarkozy, but could still benefit Le Pen. The former president's defeat has left something of a power vacuum in the conservative political sphere, which Le Pen could capitalize on by positioning herself as a strong counterpoint to Hollande and the Socialist Party.
Le Pen's Right Of Way
This would be quite a change for the NF. Despite its apparent position as the third most popular political party in France, it holds a grand total of zero seats in parliament. There are a couple of reasons for this.
For one, France's electoral process for the National Assembly inherently favors large parties. Results of the primary will tend to be representative of public opinion, but only those candidates who win 12.5 percent or more of the votes can move on to the next round. The runoff vote -- scheduled this year for June 17 -- usually involves just two or three candidates. At that point, the mainstream parties tend to absorb those votes that once went to a wider range of primary candidates.
Furthermore, the left has done a better job of using the system to its advantage. When three candidates advance to a runoff and two of them are leftist, they more frequently make agreements for the less popular candidate to drop out, avoiding a split vote. Right wing politicians have so far been less likely to make these deals.
AP reports that the last time NF candidates held a seat in parliament was in 1986, and that was only because France had changed protocol to allow for proportional representation. That policy was quickly dumped in 1988, and the NF seats went with it.
This year could be different; the NF may finally get a few of the National Assembly's 577 seats. That wouldn't be enough to form any sort of effective coalition, but it would be significant after decades of no parliamentary representation at all.
As for Le Pen herself, the fight goes on for the hearts and minds of the citizens of Henin-Beaumont. She has a strong organizational network there, and maintains an edge over her rival Melenchon, who is not from the area and seems to have swooped into the district with the express purpose of denying Le Pen a seat in parliament.
It's true, I am not from here, Melenchon said to the BBC. I am not from anywhere. I was born in North Africa. I have lived all over France, like many of the people in this country. Madame Le Pen represents a France that no longer exists. People who've lived forever in the same place, who can never accept people from the outside.
And Le Pen fired back. The extreme left remain 'internationaliste.' We are patriots. We believe in the French nation. Only the French people can guarantee their own prosperity, security, identity, she said.
It may seem odd that Le Pen, so recently a presidential candidate whose success surprised a nation, is now battling hard to win a down-and-out district for a single seat in the lower house of parliament. The obstacles she faces now are the logistical and political ones that challenge all small parties in France, and it is likely that the NF won't get far in these National Assembly elections.
But with all eyes on the community of Henin-Beaumont, whose economic woes reflect the situation of France on the whole, the appeal of Marine Le Pen and her far-right party is hard to ignore. Should this election deliver no legislative seats to the NF, Le Pen's momentum could very well fizzle. But right now, the far right has a window of opportunity to become a more powerful part of the national political discourse in France.